Is a sport-wagon the right car for you? We take an up-close look at the two primary contenders in the non-luxury segment of the class to help you find out.
By Allie Marsh
Station wagons aren’t big sellers these days. But add a bit of sporting character and the case can be made that ‘sport-wagons’ just might be the ideal vehicles for many buyers – sportier and more car-like than SUVs but with most of the same functionality. We got a Subaru Outback and a Volkswagen Golf Alltrack together to size them up, comparing their looks, overall feel and how they drive. And we even got them a little muddy in the process.
It’s worth noting that the Volkswagen Golf Alltrack was recently voted the 2017 Canadian Car of the Year by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC). But don’t interpret that accomplishment as an automatic decision over the Outback as it wasn’t eligible for that award as it wasn’t ‘all-new’ this year.
Here are the details of the two vehicles we tested:
Model Year / Make
Driver Assistance Package
Light and Sound Package
Base Price (MSRP)
Price As Tested (incl frt)
1.8-litre four-cylinder turbo
175 hp @ 5,800 rpm
170 hp @ 4,500 rpm
175 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
199 lb-ft @ 1,600 rpm
6-speed DSG automatic
11.0/8.3 L/100 km
10.6/8.0 L/100 km
1497 kg (est)
While they are similar in many ways and share some basic elements, driving these two over the course of a week revealed two very different interpretations of what a “sport wagon” should be. Among their similarities, both feature a 4-cylinder engine, a full-time all-wheel drive system and a spacious cabin, providing room for the driver and four companions, plus all that wagon-y space behind the rear seat – making for a great start to our comparison.
The Alltrack shows well - with all that chrome trim and a sassy cherry red finish. Plus, it comes well prepared with a roof rack for all sorts of outdoorsy equipment. But it’s not the car you wanna get dirty down an obstacle-laden country road with mud holes and off-camber terrain. It’s too pretty for that.
The Subaru looks like it’s ready for off-road duty; ready to clear obstacles with its higher ground clearance than the Alltrack. Small wheels you say? Yes, but that just helps enable a better ride, given the Outback’s softer suspension, helping it flex better over obstacles. Despite not having mud tires or rock crawling capability, the Subaru is better-suited for traveling off the beaten path if you don’t go too far. Plus, it’ll fit a lot more stuff under its hatch.
Leather covers the seats and soft-touch material of the highest quality covers the remainder of the interior in the Alltrack. But if you want head room, leg room and personal space – you will only find them in abundance in the front row. The second row is lacking in leg room as well as head space for adults, due to the huge panoramic sunroof just above your head – but it’s not a bad compromise for the driver who fits.
Plastic accent trim? Yup. In fact, both vehicles have plastic trim; it’s just that the Subaru’s is, well, cheap looking. It should be noted, however, that there are two more up-level trim levels above the Touring model we tested, that bring the Outback closer in price to our Alltrack tester. But, if you’re long-legged or broad shouldered, there is plenty of room for you in the Subaru’s second row. The Outbacks sunroof is limited to the front row area, leaving more space in the back for those taller passengers. Whether you carry lots-of-stuff or have big friends, the Outback has lots of space – everywhere.
Wanna talk actual numbers? Cargo capacity in the VW starts at 861 litres behind the back seat and expands to a maximum of 1,883 litres with the second row folded down.
Subaru starts with an impressive 1,005 litres of cargo capacity, a full 144 litres more than VW behind the rear seat. Just where is it exactly? We couldn’t figure it out. Maybe in its wider hips. Subaru’s maximum capacity becomes 2,075 litres with the rear seats folded down.
The Alltrack’s infotainment system is among its best features. Complete with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, this stereo sounds great and works extremely well.
Unfortunately, the Outback’s Bluetooth and USB connections are much more difficult than need be. Its Subaru Starlink system is outdated, and struggles when trying to access external music sources, wired in or not.
Venture onto a cottage trail and the Volkswagen’s stiff suspension makes the car bounce and crash around in the mud, and its low ground clearance makes it more susceptible to damage in those conditions. Besides, do you really want to get it dirty? It’s so pretty! On the road however, the VW is brilliant – it’s solid, composed and fun to drive.
If the Alltrack is at its best on smooth roads, the Subaru definitely takes the prize for rougher-road drivability. On-road the Subaru feels almost over-sized and wallowy compared to the nimble Alltrack. But The Subaru exudes confidence on that obstacle-laden country road with mud holes and off-camber terrain. It soaks up the terrain and delivers confident traction through its symmetrical all-wheel-drive system.
The Subaru feels more like an SUV than a sport-wagon on the road and the Volkswagen’s all-wheel-drive system did not falter when put to the test off the beaten path. In terms of grunt, the Alltrack pulled like the little turbo that could, unmatched by the Outback. Overall, these are two different interpretations of the sport-wagon theme, sufficiently so that each suits a different type of buyer.
Honestly, there is no best choice here. They both live up to their respective assignments. They’re both sport-wagons. What the choice comes down to is what you are looking for. If you want something that looks athletic but provides lavish comforts – the Alltrack checks all those boxes, albeit with a considerably higher price tag. If you are looking for a more rugged, off-the-beaten-path, oversized wagon trying to be an SUV, with an enormous amount of space for your active lifestyle, the Outback is for you. The choice is yours.
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